By Brandon Scalea
For the fifth straight year under Head Coach Kevin Baggett, the men’s basketball team was on a bus back to Lawrenceville after a quarterfinal exit from the MAAC Tournament.
After a slightly controversial, last-second victory over Manhattan in the first round, Rider was dominated by third-seeded Iona on March 4, by a score of 88-70. The Gaels led by as many as 22 in the second half of the contest, moving on to the MAAC semifinal and, eventually, the title game for the sixth straight season. Iona then defeated Siena in a highly contested MAAC Championship to earn the NCAA bid.
The biggest question heading into the quarterfinal game was which version of Rider-Iona would be seen. In Alumni Gym on Feb. 3, the Gaels beat the Broncs by 19. In New Rochelle, New York on Feb. 19, the Broncs beat Iona by 18, putting up 103 points in the process.
On March 4, the Broncs got off to arguably one of their worst starts of the season. Iona led 32-11 early on, and during that span, Rider turned the ball over eight times.
Senior forward Kahlil Thomas said his team simply didn’t do what it needed to do to slow down the Gaels.
“We weren’t ready to play on the defensive end,” he said. “We were letting guys have open looks all game long, and Iona rarely misses those shots.”
In the first half, Iona’s Rickey McGill had 18 points and he knocked down three 3-pointers. He finished with 25 points and six assists. Gaels’ junior guard Schadrac Casimir dropped 22 points and senior forward Jordan Washington added 16 more. Iona ultimately shot 49 percent from 3-point range, compared to Rider’s 38 percent.
Despite trailing by as much as 21 in the opening half, the Broncs went on a brief run to head into the locker room only down by 14.
In the second, Rider threatened to make it a ball game. It went on an early 7-0 run out of the gate to close the gap to seven. But Iona knocked down another big three on its next possession to get it back to double digits and never looked back.
The Broncs finished the game with 18 turnovers, which the Gaels turned into 24 points.
Freshman guard and All-MAAC Rookie Team honoree Stevie Jordan led the Broncs with 19 points and 12 rebounds for his third double-double of the season. In what could be his final collegiate game, Thomas notched yet another double-double with 13 points and 10 rebounds.
Rider had to survive and advance just to get a chance at that quarterfinal defeat. Against bottom-seeded Manhattan on March 2, Rider blew a late double-digit lead to let the Jaspers back in it. Manhattan’s junior guard Thomas Capuano put his team up by three with 2:07 left. Heading into the final 30 seconds, Thomas got inside to tie the game back up at 66.
On the next possession, a layup gave Manhattan the lead with 18 seconds left and threatened to send the Broncs home empty-handed.
But senior guard Jimmie Taylor, Third Team All-MAAC selection, dribbled at the top of the key and unleashed an off-balance, 3-point shot that fell through the twine and gave Rider a 69-68 lead with five seconds left.
Manhattan dribbled furiously up the court and, as the horn sounded, banked a shot in. But the officials ruled no basket and video review clearly showed the Jasper didn’t get the shot off in time. Officials then checked the monitor for nearly five minutes to see if Taylor’s foot was on the line when he made the alleged 3-pointer. It was very close, but there wasn’t enough evidence to overturn the call and take away a Rider win.
Thomas said waiting for the final call felt like an eternity.
“It was crazy just sitting there and waiting for the call,” he said. “It was so suspenseful. We were either winning that game or going to overtime, and we just didn’t know how to react. Some of the Manhattan players were clapping their hands thinking Jimmie’s foot was on the line. Jimmie hit a huge shot.”
Despite the early MAAC exit, Rider (18-15) has a good enough record to qualify for a mid-major postseason tournament like the College Basketball Invitational (CBI) or the College Insider Tournament (CIT). The Broncs will likely know their fate by March 12, which is Selection Sunday.
Sophomore guard Kealen Washington-Ives said he knows his role will become even greater next year with several core players graduating. But he likes where the program is heading.
“We’re moving in a good direction,” he said. “We had a better team than what our record indicated.”